Review of “Adapt” by Tim Harford

The subtitle is “Why success always starts with failure”.

Executive summary

Brilliant.  Funny.  Enlightening.


We live in a complex world.

Exhibit number 1 (page 1) is the Toaster Project.

Our brains are too small to know what to do in a complex world.

The rules of adapting

The three rules of adapting (page 36) are:

  1. Try new things, in the expectation that some will fail
  2. Make failure survivable
  3. Make sure that you know when you fail

You might think that the last is easy, but think again.  Admitting failure is a skill.


The book has examples from (and advice for) many areas of application.  Including:

  • warfare
  • poverty relief
  • drug discovery
  • climate change
  • risk management (in particular, financial)
  • shoe repair

My favorite quotes

Financial failure

Preventing banks from being ‘too big to fail’ is the right kind of sentiment but the wrong way of phrasing it, as the domino analogy shows: it would be absurd to describe a single domino as being too big to fail.  What we need are safety gates in the system that ensure any falling domino cannot topple too many others.

This is connected with normal accidents — the idea that trouble is virtually assured when there is tight coupling in a complex system.

The book doesn’t talk about it, but this is why computer programming is hard.  Any code that does much of anything is likely to have bugs.  The more complex and the more intertwined the code, the higher the probability of bugs.  Hence the value of modular programming — that is, reducing interdependence.

Making mistakes

The chapters of the book start with quotes.  Here is my very favorite of those:

‘He was not a very careful person as a mathematician.  He made a lot of mistakes but he made mistakes in a good direction … I tried to imitate him but I found out that it is very difficult to make good mistakes.’

— mathematician Goro Shimura, on his friend Yutaka Taniyama

My favorite parts

Section 1.5 is the best non-technical description of the usefulness and thrill of genetic algorithms that I’ve seen.

In addition to section 1.5 my favorite parts are the rest of the book.  It is engaging, thought-producing and useful throughout.

By the same author

Tim Harford wrote:

  • The Undercover Economist, a book that should be required reading for any politician before they take office.
  • The Logic of Life

Tim Harford website and
Tim Harford video page.

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2 Responses to Review of “Adapt” by Tim Harford

  1. Pingback: Monday links: a recipe for failure | Abnormal Returns

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